The 2012 London Olympiad has truly been a memorable occasion – not least for the record-breaking performance of British sportsmen and women.
At the time of writing, British competitors had won some 25 gold medals across a wide variety of events – and yet it was only 16 years ago in the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad that Britain managed only one solitary gold, thanks to Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave.
With only 15 medals in total and ranked 36th, immediately behind Algeria and Ethiopia, it was the UK’s poorest performance since 1952. What, then, has happened to change the abilities and competitiveness of our athletes – why the great leap to become (currently) third in the medals table?
There is no doubt that holding the 2012 games in London has given some athletes a special boost – Andy Murray commented about how seeing colleagues with all the patriotic support behind them helped inspire him – but this cannot disguise the fact that even four years ago in Beijing Team GB, as it has become known, had turned a corner and was performing well beyond expectations.
There is also the special dedication of coaches, better organisation and the fact that the drive of many second, and third-generation immigrants see representing Britain through sport as a way to better their lot. These make a contribution – but in truth were already factors before Atlanta – so what’s the big difference?
Step forward and take a bow, Sir John Major; for it was he, through his determination to introduce a national lottery that has funded so many facilities that makes Britain’s sporting revival more than just a here-today gone-tomorrow phenomenon.
It is not difficult to see with one’s own eyes what happened to sport in Britain in the past. Local councils – who, in the main, were responsible for providing or helping support sporting facilities – started to cut capital spending on new, more modern sports infrastructure rather than trim their own management or reform the way they delivered services. Worse still, they then started to pull back on the maintenance of existing facilities, letting them fall apart.
We saw it in Edinburgh with the decay of so many municipal sports centres – the Meadowbank velodrome that Sir Chris Hoy once cycled on being the most obvious example, but there were others – and this was repeated across the land.
We can all remember how, when Meadowbank opened for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, thousands of schoolchildren were introduced to sports that their parents had never had the chance to take up. I know this, because I, like many others, was put on buses and taken to Meadowbank for its track, sports halls and velodrome – and the Commonwealth Pool – for our gym classes.
The facilities were then rejuvenated for the 1986 Commonwealth Games – but since then have been left to deteriorate. Indeed, it was only the idea of attracting the 2014 games (finally won by Glasgow) that had our council thinking of how to revive the old facilities. Let’s face it – relying on the occasional sporting beano is no way to provide facilities for the emerging generations of young aspiring sports competitors.
The lottery changed all that because it took a great deal of control away from politicians looking for their bit of glory and instead gave more influence to sports administrators – and it introduced what is essentially a new income stream that, crucially, is private rather than public. Furthermore, by making lottery bids reliant on additional private and public funding to make them succeed, sports (and the arts) were able to attract funding that previously would have gone to politicians’ pet projects.
The end result has been the blossoming of new facilities, that started coming on stream just as Great Britain was toiling in Atlanta, and crucially have had the funding in place to ensure they will be maintained and not left to rot on the vine. Thus we now have competitors winning medals today who were still in nursery in 1996, but were able to access the type of training of which their fathers and mothers could only have dreamed.
The lottery is not perfect, and it was persistently robbed by the last Labour government to pay for things such as cancer care that it was never conceived for and which was meant to be funded through the NHS by the taxpayer – but it has, beyond any doubt, made a considerable difference in sport and the arts.
For that we must thank the foresight of a former Prime Minister who – if you look closely – has been in the crowds cheering the British competitors on but displays a humility that current politicians would do well to emulate.
As we look forward to seeing Team GB compete in Rio in 2016 we should be confident that – so long as the lottery funding is not abused – the destiny of British sport is to continue helping people achieve the impossible through the wide range of facilities that even Cinderella sports now enjoy.
Thank you John Major. If anybody deserves special praise for what has been achieved over the last few weeks, it is you.